Proponents of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws were shocked after the country’s top court overturned a decision sentencing a Christian woman to death for using “defamatory and sarcastic” statements against Prophet Muhammad.
Aasia Bibi has been on death row since November 2010, when a trial court found her guilty of blasphemy. A high court upheld the decision in October 2014, after which an appeal was lodged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2015.
Although there have been no legal executions under the blasphemy law, the Human Rights Watch (HRCP) figures suggest there are 17 people on death row on such charges and at least 20 serving life sentences.
The blasphemy laws, according to legal experts, are packed with flaws and legal loopholes. But despite criticisms at home and abroad, Pakistan’s political leadership is still unprepared to introduce even minor amendments to the blasphemy laws, fearing a violent backlash from religious extremists. No government, not even the one led by powerful military ruler Pervez Musharraf, dared to introduce amendments — let alone nullifying the blasphemy law.
Such is the severity of the reaction that countrywide protests erupted minutes after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of Aasia Bibi on October 31.
The majority of Pakistani religious parties in particular, and some non-religious groups in general, are supportive of the existing state of the blasphemy laws, where the accused, even if found innocent by the courts, is unable to lead normal life due to possible threats from extremists.
The new champion of the blasphemy laws is the newly emerged group in the name of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), led by wheelchair-bound cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi.
The Punjab-based cleric, who is considered an authority on Hadith, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad, catapulted to fame following the hanging of a police commando Mumtaz Qadri in February 2016. Qadri had assassinated former governor of Punjab province Salmaad Taseer.
Taseer was the first (and probably) last among top Pakistani officials to meet Asia Bibi in jail soon after her conviction. The then-governor openly expressed his views about the need to amend Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Religious extremists issued stern statements against Taseer, with some even questioning his faith; his assassin, Qadri, was hailed as a hero by such groups.
Since the assassination of Taseer in January 2011, no Pakistani official, no matter how powerful or influential, will openly call for amendments to the blasphemy laws. Those who challenged the harsh clauses added to the law during the period of General Zia ul Haq did so either through press statements or via social media. But even they were threatened and intimidated by extremists.
In November 2017, Zahid Hamid had to step down as federal law minister after weeks of protests sparked by a proposed amendment to the oath of elected representatives. In demanding his resignation, religious extremists even attacked the houses of two ministers, including that of Zahid Hamid. As many as six people were killed in the protests at the Faizabad entry point to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad in those protests.
The religious clauses of Pakistan’s constitution in general (and the clause regarding the blasphemy laws in particular) are red zones for Pakistani governments. The same clauses have also created divisions in society, where one half favors amendment while the other is averse to the slightest change.
Many were appalled when a group of university students lynched a fellow student to death on charges of blasphemy in northwestern Pakistan in April 2017. Mashal Khan was accused of blasphemy and even his village imam refused to lead his funeral prayer.
An investigation later proved the innocence of the ill-fated student and revealed that he had fallen prey to a conspiracy by some employees, whose corruption had been unearthed by Mashal Khan.
Not only have Pakistani governments been unable to take steps to avoid the misuse of blasphemy laws, they have also failed to stand up to the pressure regarding cabinet positions.
Under pressure from the religious extremists, the newly-elected government backtracked on the appointment of leading Pakistani economist Atif Mian to the country’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC) in September this year.
Atif Mian comes from the minority Ahmadi sect, whose members were declared as non-Muslims in the Constitution of Pakistan in 1973. Before that, Ahmadis were recognized as Muslims. However, since 1973, Ahmadis have been one of the most persecuted among Pakistan minority sects.
The majority of the those protesting the verdict belong to the TLP of the firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi. It was also Rizvi’s supporters who paralyzed life in Islamabad for several weeks in late 2017, forcing the then-government to apologize and withdraw the proposed amendment in the oath of elected representatives.
The TLP, at that time, was believed to have been getting a nudge from the country’s intelligence agencies to settle scores with the elected government for its differences with the army, Pakistan’s most powerful institution.
The TLP also issued a protest call following the appointment of Atif Mian to the EAC. Within a day, Pakistan’s most popular man, Prime Minister Imran Khan, had to bite his tongue and backtrack on Mian’s appointment.
Notwithstanding the angry reaction from the religious right, the court decision will prove a ray of hope for Pakistan’s religious minorities, who feel cornered with the shrinking of ideological space in face of the widening religious influence. While the religious right is on the streets condemning the courts, the government, and the security agencies for the October 31 landmark decision, the liberal left welcomed the court verdict — albeit quietly, through their social media accounts.
In a tweet, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Senator Sherry Rehman, urged upon the Pakistani state to protect those who stand for the rule of law and justice. Former Senator Farhatullah Babar, welcoming the decision, commented that it has “lit a candle in darkness and raised hopes in hopelessness.”
For the fledgling Pakistani government, it is a testing time though. Imran Khan’s stern warning to the protesting “segment” is welcome in the face of the TLP and other like-minded groups’ rising pressure.
“It is my belief that the principles on which Pakistan was founded, if they are not adhered to Pakistan has no future,” Khan said in his televised address on the evening of October 31.
The TLP and other like-minded groups and parties have time and again humbled successive Pakistani governments on matters relating to religious issues in the past. But the October 31 decision may prove a watershed if the judiciary, the executive, and the country’s armed forces stand together against the elements challenging the state and its authority.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.